Understanding MAdhyamaka - 1

nanda chandran vpcnk at HOTMAIL.COM
Tue Jun 13 15:15:58 CDT 2000

By the title, "Understanding MAdhyamaka", I don't mean to imply that I've
understood it perfectly and am trying to make others understand. I consider
even this article as part of my effort in trying to understand philosophy.

As Aristotle says, one person can see one side of a problem. Another can see
another side. Many can see all sides.

It is in this spirit that I present my views. If inconsistencies are found
in my views, please feel free to express them and we can have a constructive
discussion to resolve them. I'm more than ready to learn and understand.


Philosophical conditions before the advent of the MAdhyamaka

Principally there were two streams - the AtmavAdins or those
who advocated an eternal Self and the nairAtmavAdins or
those who denied it. The Brahmanical schools and the JainAs
fall in the first category and the early Bauddhas fall in
the second.

The Upanishads teach that Brahman made the world out of itself
and is thus the material cause of the world. But how do we
distinguish Brahman from the phenomenal world and what's the
significance of this with personal salvation?

The AtmavAdins simply didn't know. If one's to be beyond
pain and suffering, he should always be thus. It cannot be
that one can evolve from suffering to liberation. Also the
shruti taught that that man's true nature was beyond the
pleasures and pains of the world. So the main quest was to
find the true Self of man - which would be the unchangable
substance underlying the modes.

In that process they seperated the subject from the object
- i.e, purusha from prAkriti or the Atman from the paramAnu -
pushing everything which can be related to pain and suffering
i.e, the mind and the body, to the side of matter apart from
the subject - the Self. But what was the Self - though the
shruti taught that the Self was beyond the intellect, the early
philosophers couldn't resist from speculating. In their quest
for an entity in man which could be identified as being apart
from the pain and suffering, some identified it with
consciousness and some with non-consciousness.

They said knowledge of the true nature
of things - the subject and object - will result in liberation.
All the AtmavAdins insisted that the Self was neither the body
nor the senses nor the mind and that it was eternal and beyond
suffering. The Self was the underlying essence in man and to
know this Self or to know the object as different from the
subject would lead to liberation. Since personal salvation was
at stake, all the AtmavAdins asserted that there was a plurality
of souls. The proto-VedAntin - the Aupanishada - might have been
an exception in the plurality of souls category. But since we do
not really know about VedAnta between BAdarAyana and GaudapAda,
we shall not speculate.

The object - the material world and the mental faculties - was
generally accorded a seperate reality. But this is not truly
consistent with the teachings of the Upanishads, which teaces
the underlying unity of all things.

The Buddha truly made a remarkable contribution to philosophy
with his theory of anatta or the, "no self". As NAgArjuna was to
observe later, this is what brings forth a logically consistent
transcendal absolutism.

The early bauddhas interpreted anatta as lack of substance
or essence in anything. They decried the eternal Self as egoistic
and as the main obstacle towards liberation. For them, there's
no underlying essence in anything. The modes are that
which make a thing and the substance is a figment of imagination.
For e.g a chariot is made up of parts. The chariot is just a
word to describe the coming together of parts and without
the parts there's no chariot. So a chariot doesn't exist in
the absolute sense. Likewise a man is also made up only of
the five skandhas - form, feeling, perception, intelligence
and predispositions. Coming together in a particular form
he's an individual. But there's no permenant Self apart from
the skandhas.

So what's nirvAna?

NirvAna is what comes after the cessation of consciousness.
But what it is, can never be expressed.

And from these two positions of substance and modal views, both
sides fought for a while.

Ashvaghosa is probably the first philosopher who explored the
real significance of the anatta doctrine. Anatta doesn't mean
no self or lack of substance, but it means in one way the unreality of
the phenomenal self and in an other way, the selflessness of the
real self which underlies the phenomenal self. If the self as we
know it itself were real, where's the meaning in liberation? And
if there were no self, who's to be liberated? Even the Astika schools
were agreed on that individuality ceases to exist in the ultimate
state. When all subjectivity and individuality is erased, where's
there an individual self? The real Self is just pure consciousness,
the real nature of which is identical with the rest of the world.
(Ashvaghosa actually uses the word "Atman" to describe the Self).
NirvAna is just a higher level of consciousness where all
contradictions are reconciled. So samsAra and nirvAna are like two
sides of the same coin.

In Ashvaghosa, the germs of the later systems of shUnyavAda,
vijnAnavAda, advaya, the two levels of reality are all found.
History has it that he was a VedAntin who was converted to
Buddhism. A Chinese tradition names him as the guru of NAgArjuna

NAgArjuna is probably the most important logician in Indian philosophy
because, it is he who provides a logical explantion of how the world
can be real as well as unreal. This is the key which would give logical
explanation to the theory of the Upanishads, that the world is but
Brahman itself and not anything apart from it.

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